Lear retold in Mandarin as demise of a great man

The cast of Lear Is Dead comprises (clockwise from bottom left) Shu Yi Ching, Timothy Wan, Neo Hai Bin, Hang Qian Chou, Mia Chee and Jodi Chan.
The cast of Lear Is Dead comprises (clockwise from bottom left) Shu Yi Ching, Timothy Wan, Neo Hai Bin, Hang Qian Chou, Mia Chee and Jodi Chan. PHOTO: RYAN LOI

Director Nelson Chia examines the downfall of great men in Lear Is Dead, his Mandarin adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear, which runs from Oct 26 to 28 at the Drama Centre Theatre.

Shakespeare's original follows Lear from his royal prime to a decline prompted by the king's excessive pride as well as a betrayal at the hands of two of his three daughters. In the play presented by Chia's Nine Years Theatre group, a "Fools Society" retells the life of Lear after the king's death.

Nine Years Theatre, co-founded by Chia and his wife Mia Chee, has made its name through interrogating classic Western texts, but this is the troupe's first take on Shakespeare.

"Shakespeare has always been on the list," says Chia, adding that local Mandarin adaptations of the Bard are relatively rare. He himself played the Child God, a local version of Puck, in The Theatre Practice's 1999 staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Goh Boon Teck.

Chia, 46, says Lear was the play he wanted to stage in response to "post-great-man-anxiety" in Singapore and around the world. Like China after the death of Mao, or Britain after the demise of Winston Churchill, Singapore is dealing with a new reality after the passing of the old guard headed by founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

He says: "Lear speaks to me because the story surrounds a great man and the demise of a great man, the downfall of a great man. How do we deal with this situation when a leader is gone? Where do we move on from here?"

Performers include members of the Nine Years Theatre Ensemble, who work together regularly: the troupe's co-founder Chee as well as Hang Qian Chou, Neo Hai Bin and Timothy Wan, as well as theatre practitioners Jodi Chan and Shu Yi Ching.

  • BOOK IT / LEAR IS DEAD

  • WHERE: Drama Centre Theatre, National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street

    WHEN: Oct 26, 8pm; Oct 27, 3 and 8pm; Oct 28, 3pm

    ADMISSION: $38 to $58 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg). Discounts for members of Nine Years Theatre's 9-fans club (aged 26 and older, sign up at www.nineyearstheatre.com); $18 for members of Nine Years Theatre's Gen-9 club (aged 16 to 25, sign up at www.nineyearstheatre.com)

Nine Years Theatre has increasingly played with stage artistry to interrogate a text directly. In May's P***ed Julie, multiple actors played the same role at one time, for example, each expressing different facets of the character. The play-within-a-play device in Lear Is Dead is a theatrical trick even Shakespeare employed. In Hamlet, actors tell the haunted prince's truth to the court of Denmark.

The "Fools Society" in Lear Is Dead is also a nod to the Fool of the original Shakespearean text. The Fool was the only member of court able to rebuke the proud king Lear.

"Across cultures, the comic character is omnipresent," says Chia. "They circumvent that role and do the things that the 'hero' can't do."

What they do for the audience is to examine Lear with objectivity. "We are a little removed and we see how Lear is being made, how a great man is being unmade and remade," says Chia.

He adds: "In a hopefully entertaining, allegorical way, that's the role of the artist and the poet."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2018, with the headline 'Lear retold in Mandarin as demise of a great man'. Print Edition | Subscribe